Advancing the ‘urbanidad’: A new church every week

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 28 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery

Churches in Latin America

Spanish conquistadors from the fifteenth-century, and subsequent waves of new world settlers that arrived during the the period of Spanish imperial dominance were thorough adheres of the urbanidad (urban-living) doctrine, an outcome of the Renaissance era, that advocated living in an urbanised setting surrounded by political, social and religious institutions. Organized urban life was considered superior to the presumed disorder of the rural areas, and building urban governance centers was a goal that commanders diligently worked towards. Bogota, Quito and Lima were among the power-centers established in the New World.

It is often said that colonizers conquered South America with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other. Indeed, as the invading Spanish forces subjugated one Aztec or Inca city after the other, they swiftly replaced the local religion and language with Christianity and Spanish respectively. Advancing the Catholic faith was one of the primary missions of the Spanish crown and this was usually augmented by razing native temples and reusing the materials to build impressive cathedrals. A concentration of churches and chapels in newly resettled urban centers of political and administrative power made it easier for immigrants to integrate in the civilized social fabric of New Spain.

Social cohesion, often in the name of conformity, is a key outcome of the multitude of socio-cultural influences that religious institutions bring. While a large number of social venues and socialization opportunities exist at our disposal today, for centuries people gathered at religious institutions and faith-based organizations as part of a social ritual where, among other outcomes, ideas were exchanged and the foundations of social progress were built. For example, the Jesuit missions, in their limited influence, encouraged European conquerors to approach the natives with respect for the local culture and religion rather than treating the natives in a barbaric manner. Studies also argue that churches and other faith-based organisations have an important strategic significance for the formation social capital, despite their apparent lack of progressive social praxis. Churches evolved in an organic manner in confined areas for a reason. Individuals congregating in larger numbers in church (church followers) and in more churches located in proximity to one another (church density) are factors that contribute positively to social progress and social services initiatives. No doubt these factors assisted the formation of a social order in the New World.

↑ Beautiful architecture, dazzling interiors and humbling HDR photos of church interiors. Click to enlarge!

Churches in Cuenca’s historic centre

This phenomenon, of building a large number of places of worship in a small area, is fairly evident in a number of old towns across the world. Jerusalem’s old city, where temples of three religions converge in an in-your-face fashion, pops up in my mind instantly! While Cuenca’s historic centre is nowhere as dramatic, it IS home to a total of fifty-two churches, often more than one in each block. Cuenca’s old city epitomizes the successful implantation of the principles of renaissance-era urban planning and the successful fusion of different societies and cultures in a meticulously planned layout. In 1999, Cuenca was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

Although fifty two is a large number for a relatively small downtown area, the buildings not only seamlessly integrate with other commercial and residential properties in the old city but, in fact, define the city’s architectural aesthetic. Many of these churches are towering – can’t-fit-in-your-camera sized – structures with prominent belfries, immaculately sculpted facades and bright domes. Richly decorated interiors are supported by high beams and soaring columns upon which numerous angel sculptures are set. Smaller chapels, with their own altars and benches are built along the sides of the main hallway leading to the principal altar. I’ve always found the setup of Catholic churches similar to Hindu temples – it’s like a supermarket of gods or godly personalities, someone tucked away in each corner of the building waiting to be prayed – although one must note the disagreement in the definition of God between these two systems.

With so many churches, you can possibly go to a new place of worship every Sunday. For a traveller, this equates to a serious church fatigue which I bet most travelers to Latin America can attest to. 🙂 Nevertheless I enjoyed walking around, taking pictures and peeping inside a church or two.


↑ Charming blue domes of Cuenca cathedral

  • Cathedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion: This cathedral is so large that it appears like a mini-fortress. Located at the centre of Cuenca, this “new” cathedral, which was initiated in 1885 CE but took 80 years to complete, is now the principal cathedral in the city. When I visited this place, about ten photographers, including me ofcourse, had their lenses aimed at the church struggling to capture the entire building. It’s bright blue domes are mesmerizing and will guarantee a good photograph from any angle.
  • El Sagrario: Opposite to the new cathedral is this “old cathedral” (now a museum since you can only have one cathedral in a city) which was built in 1557 CE on top of Inca ruins.
  • Other major churches include: The Iglesia de San Francisco opposite to a market, Iglesia de San Sebastian next to a plaza named after the same saint, Iglesia de San Blas, Iglesia de San Cenaculo, Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion which is adjacent to the colourful flower market, and the large Iglesia de Santo Domingo.

For most checklist-type travellers, it will not take more than a day to visit and photograph the tourist attractions in Cuenca central, includeing plentiful opportunities to grab salvation points. 😉 Hope you enjoyed this tour and the history lesson.